Dead or Alive

Art initiative uses plant power to restore drylands

Alternative facts say environmental degradation isn’t real. Alternative art initiative desert ArtLAB says it is—and there’s something real we can do about it.

April Bojorquez and Matt Garcia created desert ArtLAB, a public art project exploring the connections between ecology, technology and community, in 2010 in response to a sustainability initiative they attended as graduate students at Arizona State University. At first, the pair believed the new initiative sounded promising, but quickly realized Native voices were left out of the conversation.

Garcia describes speakers who traveled to Arizona from England and Italy to lecture about arid, low-rain regions known as drylands and "to tell us how to live our lives." Throughout these presentations, Garcia thought, "You know, we actually know a lot about the desert. So [April and I] decided to have an ecologically centered Indigenous space focused on how we live in our changing environment."

This space took shape through a mobile eco-studio, built in 2012, that travels to urban dryland environments to teach about Native plant and food traditions through workshops including performances and cooking lessons.

"The ecological practice is tied to our cultural and food practice," Bojorquez explains. "It is our focus to explore Indigenous complex systems that include cultural systems."

In 2016, the artists received a grant from New York nonprofit Creative Capital that planted the seed for their latest project, Ecologies of Resistance, on view at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts. The installation records the transformation of a healthy-turned-neglected plot of land in Pueblo, Colorado (where Garcia grew up), which desert ArtLAB purchased last summer.

Garcia's deep-rooted connection to the region is clear. "We're staying. We're not going anywhere," he says resolutely. "This is our home. So how do we reconnect with where we are and make it better?"

The connection is documented in the MoCNA gallery through a series of artifacts: a crushed Coke can, an empty whiskey bottle and other littered memories of disregard for the Earth are scattered amidst framed amaranth and prints that command viewers to plant, grow, eat, love and, ultimately, decolonize. And while "decolonization" may be an important concept, even a buzzword in some communities, "it was important to articulate what the practice of decolonization actually is," Bojorquez says. "We aim to share that and provide a constructive example of what the action looks like."

The action looks like desert ArtLAB revitalizing the plot with native plants to create a healthy and edible landscape. Due to the neglected nature of the space, the artists first had to use a jackhammer to get into the ground and plant cholla cacti, which act as a natural tiller and survive intense living conditions. "Amaranth, cholla—these plants take so little," Garcia shares with matter-of-fact exuberance. "They survive the most hostile environments and give so much back."

The artist-ecologists do the same, using the initiative to challenge urban spaces that have disregarded dryland resources and Indigenous histories with opportunities for reciprocity and engagement. In the case of Ecologies, the artists employ college students in the Pueblo community to help restore the land.

Even with this support, the beginning of the project was met with waves of doubt. "The community would come around and tell us, 'You'll have to get soil; nothing is going to grow; the land is dead,'" Garcia explains.

But the artists persisted. Rather than adding soil, they started with the "dead" land, in recognition that the road to recovery takes an equal amount of time as the road to destruction.

"This is a time-based project," Garcia tells SFR, "and that time frame is generations. It's going to take a long time to realistically regrow and promote dryland beauty—it took a long time to get where it is now, and it is going to take a long time to grow it back."

Now, a year into the project, Bojorquez shares that the growth has begun. The land is coming to life. Those who doubted now look on in amazement. The Ecologies of Resistance story unfolds with grace and rigid resilience, much like a cactus in bloom.

With amaranth and cholla as guides, desert ArtLAB's artfully ecological approach withstands winds of change and threatening environments to continually grow into irrepressible beauty.

Ecologies of Resistance Artist Reception

5 pm Thursday Aug. 17. Free.

Mobile Eco-Studio Performance

1 pm Saturday Aug. 19. Free.

Both events: Museum of Contemporary Native Arts,
108 Cathedral Place,

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